If there is one essential 20th century opera, it is Wozzeck*. It was fascinating to see and hear it so soon after the WNO's Lulu last month (see the review for my thoughts on the piece) and be reminded of how different it is. In Lulu there is a floating meaningless to everything, a dislocation of emotion, music, event; Wozzeck is overloaded with meaning, portents, extreme emotional and psychological states, such that madness is the only rational recourse. The music of Wozzeck glowers, exalts, soughs, weeps, screams; the music of Lulu unfurls, luxuriates, courses, throbs, coruscates. Both are supreme masterpieces, but why is Wozzeck essential? To me it seems one of the few genuinely positive developments from Wagner which fully captures the zeitgeist, in an era of kitsch, schlock, sleaze, bad taste, sentimentality, shock tactics - Strauss, Schreker, Korngold, much as I love them all (really I do), represent a decline from Wagnerism, doubtless fertile and with boundless energy, but nevertheless a collapsing end to Teutonism where extraordinary beauty of surface, infallible technique and guiltless vulgarity conspire to make a style of total excess that simply cannot support itself indefinitely. On the other side, and very closely related in my opinion, is Schoenberg who after his equally luxuriant beginnings, and wonderful early "free atonal" modernism, castrates himself in the 20s by eschewing beauty, colour, pleasure and it's left to others who also adopt serialism to reclaim these aspects of music, which it transpires are essential to the meaning, not just the style, of music. In Wozzeck, Berg builds something new and very powerful that really has not been seen in music before - using an 80 year old text, he manages to portray madness, human frailty, alienation, sickness, and extremes of psychology on stage using a musical language and dramatic framework that can for once totally bear the requirements of the task.
Carrie Cracknell updates the piece to contemporary Britain, the working classes dealing with the fall out of the Iraq (?) war. For once the physical and visual aspects of a production actually manage to capture modern Britain with honesty, realism, and mercifully without the feeling of "playing at poverty". The set is a sort of dolls house arrangement with a pub at the bottom, Wozzeck's house on the second floor, and a mysteriously unused top floor. Despite the static layout, it never bores visually and provides an excellent backdrop for Cracknell's idea. Cracknell takes the drama deadly seriously, not making light of anything, trying always to lead us through the tortured narrative with maximum clarity and relevance. Some things are superbly handled - Marie's infidelity, the crowd scenes, Wozzeck's mental fragmentation, and his death. In the original, Wozzeck drowns possibly as an accident because he is concerned with hiding the knife that he has killed Marie with. Here, the whole scene takes place in his kitchen, the situation entirely enacted in his mind, and he commits suicide using the same knife, slumping onto the table facing the already murdered Marie. At this moment, the walls begin to run with blood. I left the theatre shaken and physically sick, wanting to cry but being unable to. Berg's genius was surely the main constituent, but any production that manages to allow this to happen must surely be deemed to be an overall success.
There are problems however. The huge number of nature references in the libretto, go as for nothing. In Wozzeck, Nature is imminent, terrifying, loaded with significance, full of bad portents, all of them are true. While it is true that society in our time very alienated from nature, and so it would be out of place to depict much of it on stage, the text is the text, and to ignore it because your setting doesn't allow it, even if it is a prime ingredient of the drama, seems to me to be an eschewal of responsibility. The bigger problem however derives from a certain inauthenticity in depicting modern working class Britain. As I say, visually the illusion is complete, but Richard Stokes' translation of the libretto retains the classical references and sometimes artful language of the original, and everyone insists on using (or perhaps were forced to use) the ENO's generic "proper English" diction, which is broadly BBC English. It just doesn't ring true. At the same time, Americanisms (e.g. asshole, rather than arsehole) sit beside old fashioned grammatical constructions. Marie's recourse to Christianity seems unlikely in an age where religion has been replaced by mass media. There's also a spurious and slightly confusing drug dealing subplot which didn't really add anything beyond giving the characters something to do on stage. There are always challenges to an updating, but it would have been better art if the ENO had been braver in allowing the concept to lead the translation and accents, especially as English is a language so particularly laden with class implications. It all made me wonder what a Regency Wozzeck would look like. What about one set in the upper classes of that time? Is poverty essential to the drama? Would be fascinating to find out.
Leigh Melrose is a vocally excellent Wozzeck, fully managing the huge range of expression and intensity that the character requires vocally. Acting wise, I found it a mixed bag - he was very good in the latter, madder half of the opera, often very touching, but at first was not very believable and registered as the least defined character that we were introduced to.
With the caveat that it was sung in English, I really cannot imagine a more vocally ideal Marie than Sara Jakubiak. The voice is beautiful in every register at every volume, and sounds positively large even in the Coliseum, which is basically unheard of (pun not intended). I am greatly looking forward to seeing Karita Mattila perform the same role at the ROH next season, but honestly would be as happy hearing Jakubiak. Same would go for the ROH Ariadne actually. I couldn't quite believe how good she was. Acting wise, she was unfortunately less convincing and in the early scenes would continually just sing straight at the audience rather than to her son/Wozzeck/lover. Again though, she improved as the opera progressed.
The rest of the cast are also vocally very good. Tom Randle's bare chested Captain is brilliantly characterised, and James Morris' impressive Doctor quite horrible in his fascination with and clear exacerbation of Wozzeck's madness. Clare Presland's Margret revealed a voice of unique colour, and Bryan Register's Drum Major is a brilliant physical embodiment of the part (though provides the most jarring dislocation of accent and character).
The orchestra is a marvel. This is in my opinion one of the best things that Ed Gardner has done: his passionate advocacy shines through in every bar, his tempos always excellent, his support of the singers exemplary, and even in the horribly pallid acoustics of the Coliseum, every one of Berg's extraordinary orchestrations emerges beautiful, glistening, wilting under its own overwrought intensity and density. At some points it felt like we were hearing Mahler's 11th Symphony, and there were places that I just have never heard Berg's textures so tellingly or beautifully revealed. Had this been in the ROH's acoustic it would have been aural perfection. The orchestra of course are at least half the deal here - the playing was simply superb throughout. A sterling achievement.
*I would also urge the four mature Janacek operas as the sane, moral, healthy counterweight to Berg's masterpiece, but would be loathe to choose just one. Maybe Vixen for the greatest contrast?